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FIRST-PERSON: Pastor recounts church’s response to ‘hurting people all around us’

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP)–Eastside Baptist Church is coming out of what we hope to be the worst part of an unbelievable nightmare. One of our staff members, who served as a Tae Kwon Do instructor in our Christian Activity Center, has had multiple charges of child molestation leveled against him.

This colleague in ministry was a model staff member and a model citizen. There never was any indication that he could ever be charged with such a horrible crime. A criminal background check would not have produced any evidence to create the slightest suspicion that he was capable of such conduct.

He was loved and respected. He is married to one of the most devout Christian young women in our church. He taught Sunday school. He was faithful to his responsibilities. He was winsome in his personality.

When the news of his possible sexual misconduct surfaced, our church in Marietta, Ga., went into shock, then denial that such preposterous accusations could be directed toward such an apparent fine young man. However, when the smoke began to clear, it was evident that scores of families were dealing with the stark realization that their sons, some of preschool age, could have been subjected to their worst fears.

I was made aware of this unfolding saga by a 5:35 a.m. telephone call on the first Monday last December. I was actually awake when the phone rang and was preparing to go to the church to meet with a small prayer group that I had been meeting with on Monday morning for more than three years.

When I got to the church, I told my partners in prayer that I was going to have to deal with a crisis that had surfaced in the life of the church and that I needed their most fervent prayer support. They immediately surrounded me and asked God to give me the wisdom and courage to do what was right in the midst of the unfolding circumstances.

After being fortified by the prayers of these saints, I confirmed the report that I had initially heard and consulted with our executive pastor. I provided some general information to the staff at our 9 a.m. chapel service and then scheduled a meeting with our senior staff to map out a plan of action.

Calls to the Georgia Baptist Convention and LifeWay Christian Resources provided helpful information about legal advice. A Christian attorney in Oklahoma who deals with churches in such crises provided great counsel. A Christian attorney in our own church began to meet with us and provide excellent counsel as we began to navigate our way through the murky waters that seemed to surround us.

The young man, who was being charged with the misconduct, fled the area and authorities had already begun their search for his whereabouts. Several things became apparent to those of us in the midst of this crisis. We decided that our first priority was to the families whose children had allegedly been the subject of any misconduct. Next, we felt we had an obligation to our staff member, who had become the center of this controversy. Our third concern was for the health of the church.

The parents of children in the Tae Kwon Do class began calling the church fearing that their child may have been molested. Since our first concern was for the children and their families, we immediately called a Christian therapist and arranged for him to meet with all interested parties on the very next night — Tuesday night. We called all of the families who had children in the Tae Kwon Do classes and more than 100 parents showed up for the meeting.

Some parents vented their anger and others wept quietly as the counselor told the parents how they might be able to detect whether their child had been the subject of any sexual misconduct. We assured the parents that nothing was more important to us than the welfare of their children. We assured all those in attendance that the church would provide counseling to anyone and everyone who needed it at absolutely no cost to them.

We had a second meeting with all interested parties the next night to provide additional counseling resources and to allow the law enforcement officers assigned to the Crimes Against Children department report on their investigation. A week later, a meeting was scheduled for the parents with the district attorney and his staff to gain an understanding of the process.

Since early in December, the church has continued to provide a variety of counseling options and support to all interested families. I even began preaching a sequence of messages on the general theme, “Crises Don’t Last but Christians Do.”

Our second concern was for our own staff member who was at the epicenter of this crisis. He was still missing and there was no way that any of us could get closure in this dark scenario until he was in custody. We knew that he was outside of the Atlanta area but that he had a cell phone and had called various people on several occasions.

I called him, left a message, and he returned my call. I tried to impress upon him the wisdom of presenting himself to the authorities and being accountable. I even offered to meet him and go with him to the law enforcement officials. The church secured the services of a Christian attorney and offered to pay for the first two hours of consultation as an inducement to get him to come back and face the charges that had been leveled against him.

In response to the encouragement of others and after being a fugitive for almost a week, the missing staff member came back and committed himself to one of the FBI agents who had been assigned to his case. Since that time, he has been incarcerated but our church has prayed for him and I have visited him regularly in jail since his arrest.

We also made a decision to be very open and transparent to the media. We have tried to be cooperative and courteous, open and honest to the television and newspaper reporters; consequently, they have been gracious and kind to the church. In some cases, I have said to the media, “If I thought it would help, I would get down on my knees and ask you to be gracious to the church in your reporting.”

From the very beginning, we have as a church prayed a prayer that is suggested by Genesis 50:20 where Joseph said, “But as for you, you thought evil against me but God meant it unto good….”

At this point in time, we cannot say that God has turned a tragedy into a triumph because there are hurting people all around us. However, we know that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. And our wonderful Lord is proving himself sufficient in the lives of many and doors of ministry are opening to people that we would never have known otherwise, and we have discovered that God is good — all the time.
Harris is pastor of Eastside Baptist Church, Marietta, Ga.

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  • Gerald Harris